Tag Archives: book review

Recommended Reading

Here’s the best of the latest…

1. Between the World and Me,
by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

This is an important book. It’s required, really — something I honestly believe every American would benefit from reading. Most simply, it’s a father’s letter to his teenage son about what it means to be black in America. Riveting, devastating, and eye-opening, it recently won the National Book Award and, yeah… just read it.

2. Gold Fame Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins.
Continuing with my trend of accidentally reading dystopian tales of the near future, I present this gritty, yet ethereal story. Mega droughts and relentless winds have turned the Southwest into a desert wasteland. Most Californians have been evacuated, and the ones who remain are an odd bunch of hippies, survivalists, loners, and  dune-dwelling cult members. Stuff happens, but deep down, I think the story is ultimately about how honesty, or the lack of it, plays out within and between people.

3. Ready Player One, by Ernst Cline.
Although this book is also set in the not-so-distant-but-totally-bleak-post-collapse-future, it’s basically pure nerd fun and nostalgia. The world is crap. Most people spend their time in an expansive virtual reality, and teenage protagonist Wade Watts has dedicated his life to conquering the ultimate video game quest. Though set in the near future, the book is really a love letter to 80’s culture, and it’s full of inside jokes and references to everything from Family Ties to Monty Python. I especially enjoyed the debate on the merits of Ladyhawke. Summer is coming, and this is a delightful summer read.

4. Euphoria, by Lily King.
Set in remote tribal New Guinea in the early 1930’s, King’s beautifully crafted novel pays homage to the great anthropologist Margaret Mead. Steamy (literally–they’re in serious jungle here) and vibrant, the story follows the research, relations, and subsequent love triangle between three anthropologists, and is inspired in part by Mead’s own life. It’s a gorgeous book.

5. The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman.
This book is pure mood and ambiance. Set in the gritty and bleak 1910’s of industrial New York City, the story follows a young girl with webbed fingers who works and lives in a sideshow museum, and a young immigrant photographer who walks away from his Jewish Orthodox community and faith. It’s book-ended by two terrible fires, and encompasses thoughts on workers’ rights, deceit, truth, change, and the courage it takes to forgive and value yourself.

6. Blankets, by Craig Thompson.
A dreamy, snow-swept account of falling in love for the first time, Blankets speaks to keeping and losing faith, to being a teenage misfit, brother, and developing artist. It’s meditative, powerful, and full of grace, and it’s on a lot of “best non-superhero graphic novel” lists for a reason.

 

Review of Lab Girl

Check out my latest review for Orion magazine, and then check out the book!

Lab Girl by Hope JahrenLab Girl
By Hope Jahren
Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.
$26.95, 304 pages.

“People are like plants: they grow toward the light. I chose science because science gave me what I needed — a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be,” writes geobiologist Hope Jahren, in Lab Girl, her luminous debut memoir.

Raised in a stoic, midwestern household where “the vast emotional distances between the individual members . . . [were] forged early and reinforced daily,” Jahren grew up living a bit of a double life. By day she helped her mother in the garden and did traditional “girl things,” but at night she’d follow her father to his teaching lab at the local community college and find her true sanctuary. Roaming after hours, rifling through drawers, contemplating equipment, and experimenting with pH strips and slide rulers, Jahren felt like a superhero in the lab, shedding her daywear as she transformed “from a girl into a scientist.” In spite of a complete lack of female scientist role models, her desire — even need — to become one herself was built upon this bone-deep instinct she doggedly pursued for decades.

Today, with a bevy of prestigious awards, professorships, and a long list of scientific publications written in a rare “language that very few people can read and that no one ever speaks,” Jahren is prolific in her field. But it turns out that she has impressive conversational chops, too. Peppered with literary references to Ganet, Beckett, Dickens, and Thoreau, Jahren’s honest prose is insightful, eloquent, and funny, and she has a gift for explaining hard science in the most bewitching way.

As chapters alternate between the personal and ecological, we learn how willows clone themselves, how trees remember their past, how seeds incubate, and why cacti form spines. But we also see how these natural phenomena parallel Jahren’s own journey. A passage on the tenacity of a vine that “becomes whatever it needs to be and does whatever it must in order to make real its fabulous pretensions” is cleverly paired with a frustrating but fascinating account of the never-ending battle to secure funding for science. It’s a common struggle in a country that “may say it values science, but sure as hell doesn’t want to pay for it.”

But the real heart of the book is the story of her touching relationship with Bill, her brilliant, disaffected lab partner. Fiercely loyal to each other, Bill and Jahren are kindred spirits, fraternal twins born of different mothers, matched in their insatiable curiosity, monster work ethic, and eccentricity. Together they build and move three different labs, often living below the poverty line in lean times, and in Bill ’s case, actually living in the lab.

Lab Girl is a book about being a woman in science as much as it is a clarion call to follow your passion. But in the end, it’s easy to see the book as a love note — not just to plants, to science, and to the sweetness of discovery, but also to friendship and loyalty, to journeys big and small, to belonging and becoming.

— Kathleen Yale

The Bees

Like Margret Atwood? Enjoy The Hunger Games and Animal Farm? Get excited about bees, putting honey in your tea, and rebelling against The Man?

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Then allow me to recommend some winter reading!  Check out my latest book review in the January/February 2015 issue of Orion Magazine

It’s a great issue — Tony Doerr, Jane Hirschfield, David Gessner, BK Loren, a sweet photography portfolio on enchanted Russia, and an awesome special section on prison writing and art workshops, and, as always, some good book reviews…

The Bees
Laline Paull
Ecco, 2014. $25.99, 352 pages.

It’ s hard to be an individual when you’re born into a society whose motto is “Accept, Obey, and Serve,” but Flora 717 is special from the start. Born to the lowly sanitation caste, she’s “obscenely ugly,” “excessively large,” and yes, a honeybee. So opens playwright Laline Paull’s dystopian debut novel, The Bees.

Although her hive unquestioningly values only hard work, self-sacrifice, total obedience, and cult-like Queen-worshiping, bold Flora is caught between this ingrained dogma and her own curiosity. Able to speak while her fellow caste sisters cannot, she is tolerated as somewhat of an experiment (a rare thing in this totalitarian state) and is soon allowed to survey hidden parts of the labyrinth hive as she moves in an unprecedented progression up the ranks, from janitor to nursery aid to morgue tender, and finally to forager. As one of the hive’s nectar gatherers, with their “blazing faces and radiant ragged wings, who smelled of no kin but the wild high air,” Flora gets caught in storms and love-drunk on nectar. She battles and avoids wasp, spider, and bird enemies collectively known as “The Myriad,” and evades the hive’s Gestapo-like fertility police, continuously proving her strength and wit, even as she hides an unthinkable secret.

For like any good, self-congratulating cult, the hive is wrapped up in the political
intrigue of its own staunchly enforced caste system and prophetic dogma (“Our mother, who art in labour, Hallowed be Thy womb . . .” ). Pheromones are pumped out like opiate incense to mollify the masses, and any anomalies are swiftly eliminated. This is no place for funny business. So when Flora starts getting a strange feeling in her belly one day, she’s justifiably shocked and
horrified to find herself laying her own egg in a place where “Only the Queen Shall Breed,” and an offense to the contrary is not just mutinous, but a blasphemous death sentence. And yet, Flora is overcome with this awakening new love she feels for her offspring, even as the feeling mingles with her own guilt and betrayal.

Paull’s sensuous writing and contagious fascination for her subjects provide a sturdy anchor even when certain plotlines wear thin and peter out. What might have felt like a gimmicky writers workshop exercise never does, and it’s a compelling way to learn, for instance, how honeybees secrete wax from their abdomens, feed royal jelly to their larvae, and swarm enemy invaders, cooking
them to death with their collective body heat.

Apis enthusiasts will recognize the foragers’ famous waggle dance,
described here as a raucous Dance Hall affair where sisters congregate to learn of good foraging spots in vivid detail. Of particular interest are the drone
male bees or “Your Malenesses,” who are depicted as ridiculous, if not humorous, gluttonous sex fiends, exhibiting none of their sisters’ restraint, yet setting all of them a titter — that is until they no longer serve their purpose come fall, and are turned on and torn to pieces in a grizzly scene straight out of The Bacchae.

Although we know the hive is beginning to fail, big environmental issues like
pesticide damage, ecosystem destruction, and colony collapse disorder are only hinted at. Still, The Bees shines a compelling and imaginative light onto a complex animal society that often goes unnoticed. Readers will never again blindly spoon honey into their tea without thinking of all that went into filling the jar.

— Kathleen Yale

Funny Once

Like reading about bored, terminally unhappy people sometimes behaving badly? Then check out my latest book review for High Country News — the exceptional Antonya Nelson’s fifth collection of stories, Funny Once.

Seriously, you’re not going to feel uplifted, or probably have too much sympathy for many of the characters, but the woman sure knows how to write both modern western ennui, and some damn beautiful sentences.

books-funnyonce-jpg

In Funny Once, her distinctive fifth collection of short stories, Antonya Nelson shares a bleak and lonely view of today’s suburban West, populated by characters who face a sort of “terminal unhappiness.” From Houston to Wichita, Albuquerque to Telluride, we encounter desperately bored people behaving badly. They cheat and are cheated on, they self-medicate, they lie at their AA meetings and then slip around the corner for a beer, they stare through windows contemplating the emptiness of their middle-aged lives with a devastating yet oddly refreshing clarity.

In one story, three adult children finally haul their obstinate father to a nursing home, literally duct-taping the old man to his easy chair and loading him into the back of a pickup. “Could anyone ever predict this was where we’d end up?” they ask themselves. In another story, Phoebe, a dedicated pessimist, is galled by her husband’s idealism, the way he fails to see how “life was so little like a science experiment and so much like a cluttered drawer where you tossed things just to get them out of sight.”

The danger of depicting so many miserable, reckless misanthropes in a single book is that some of the characters start to blend together, seeming interchangeable in their lifestyles and attitudes. Nelson writes with a graceful, powerful ease, though, and while her stories brim with the experience of boredom, they are certainly never boring in themselves.

In “Literally,” one of the book’s most memorable stories, a widower struggles to protect both his own young son and the son of his loyal Latina housekeeper from the harshness of life. Of course, trouble ensues — the boys disappear on a secret mission one afternoon, restraining orders are broken, a precious phone containing all his late wife’s last messages is lost. In the end, safely back home, young Danny sums up not just his own experience, but the theme of Nelson’s entire collection perfectly in one line: “This has been a terrible day. … Even though nothing exactly bad happened.”

— By Kathleen Yale